What one 23-year-old taught us
In all the stories about the 23-year old rape victim as braveheart, it’s worth remembering this. She had no intention to be a braveheart. She was not planning to be an activist or a symbol. She just wanted to go home.
She was 23. She came from Ballia from Eastern Uttar Pradesh. She was a paramedical student. On 16 December, she thought she was boarding a bus. But in fact, she was boarding a nightmare. That nightmare has ended in Singapore.
That is all we really know about her. And out of that much we have to construct an obituary for her. The media gave her names. Nirbhay. Damini. Amanat. But as Nilanjana Roy writes on her blog, “Don’t tell me her name; I don’t need to know it to cry for her.”
In all the stories about the 23-year old rape victim as Braveheart, it’s worth remembering this. She had no intention to be a braveheart. She didn’t want to become a flickering candle on some dark street corner. She didn’t want to become a symbol. Of sorrow. Of hope. Of our shame. Of anything really. Those are all identities we have given her. She just wanted to go home. Perhaps tell a friend what she thought of the movie she had just seen.
Doctors will argue whether it was wise to have shifted such a critically ill patient to another country. Stories have already been doing the rounds that the move was prompted more by politics than by medical needs.
I have no patience with those who say we must do this or we must do that so that she will have not died in vain.
Because she did die in vain. It was a pointless, brutal, terrible death. She should never have been on death’s door just because she boarded a bus to go home. But in death she left us with some lessons about ourselves. These were lessons she did not teach us, but we learned them anyway. Hopefully.
We learned that it’s an exercise in futility to try and assign a hierarchy to rape as if one rape is more deserving of attention than the other. It’s a recipe for doing nothing.
We learned that it is possible to shake a country out of its apathy. The tragedy was that it took an assault as gut-wrenchingly brutal as this one. We found out that young people do care, that compassion has not just been outsourced to NGOs. Let’s not question why this jolted us more than other rapes now. Let’s be thankful we are capable of being jolted.
We learned that if enough people raise their voices a government cannot ignore them. Whether they are effective or not, the flurry of measures announced by the government counts for something.
We learned that safety is not about what women do, wear or when they go out. It's about what men around them do. It's no point making up rules that circumscribe women's movement in order to keep them safe. Because rape can happen at home as well.
We also learned that there will be no miracle solution even if we are hungry for one. Even as the nation was rocked by protests over her gangrape, other women were raped. A journalist in Delhi reporting on this very story was “eve-teased” by a group of young men in a car. Another young woman in Patiala hanged herself because the police had not acted on her complaint. An MP dismissed the protesters as “painted and dented women.”
Last night at a book launch in Kolkata, film critic Samik Bandyopadhyay was talking about his experience of being on a board that advised the censor board in the seventies. He said one of the most horrific parts of that job was seeing a three-hour reel of censored clips from all kinds of films, all strung together without any context. He said over 50 percent of them, perhaps more, showed a woman lying on the ground and a group of men surrounding her. The scenes were all shot from very low. You could just see the lower halves of the bodies of the men, thrusting and advancing, and the woman on the ground. They were not necessarily touching her. Yet. But they kept moving towards her, in a group, in a pack, in a sort of horrifying menacing war dance.
The larger question that must haunt us is this: what is it about us that makes us so prone not just to rape but to gangrape? Why has that become the weapon of choice for men to exert power whether its over a woman in bus or a boy in a hostel?
There will be many articles, seminars, panels to address all this in days to come.
But for now let’s just remember this: The young woman who died just wanted to live. She wanted to go home after seeing The Life of Pi.
In that film, one learns that there can be two versions of one story. And it is up to us to choose the better one. It is not necessarily the one with the happier ending. It does not have to be the truer one. But we choose it because it is the one that allows us to go on.
The 23-year-old rape victim’s life ended at a Singapore hospital yesterday. It’s up to us now to choose how her story will end.
It could end in a hail of stones and water cannons. It could end in lynching mobs and rapists who are stoned to death. It could end in recriminations about how we care because this is a middle class girl and not a Dalit woman gathering firewood.
Or it could end in a push for justice which one hopes will have a far more long-lasting impact than vengeance.
She is gone. She fought hard. And now she can rest in peace. She has earned that right many times over. But we have not.